Film Review: American Animal

Self-indulgent indie about a trust-fund kid who thinks he's found the answer to the human experience. Whit Stillman it's not.

In this debut-feature four-hander shown in festivals throughout last year, eccentric trust-fund kid Jimmy (filmmaker Matt D'Elia in the starring role) berates his friend, roomie and fellow trust-funder James (Brendan Fletcher), for taking a job. "You only want a job because other people have them, or because other people say you should have one," Jimmy rants, continuing colorfully. And when James quite reasonably tells Jimmy that it's important to give back, to integrate with society and to just get out of the house, Jimmy answers with a monologue about how evolution has brought them here and capitalism worked and their parents got rich and so the two of them don't have to work. And while we're clearly meant to see Jimmy as an idiot, we're also meant to see him as an id—one spouting hard truths about the world that only those freed from the drudgery of work can see.

As it happens, there's not a lot of truth in this single-set film, nor well-developed characters, nor much of anything except the late-night grad-student ramblings of an actual rich kid whose dad, Bill D'Elia—executive producer of "Ally McBeal," "Boston Legal," "Harry's Law" and other TV shows and telefilms, and a busy director as well—served as his executive producer. It doesn't help that Jimmy's philosophical ravings are based on a cloistered worldview taken almost exclusively from movies, which get talked about and referenced at length, rather than life as we know it.

It also doesn't help that none of the other characters—well-acted though they are—are anything approaching real human beings. James is simply the sounding board who raises the normal, predictable objections to Jimmy's beliefs and behavior, and the two young women—misogynistically identified in the credits as Blonde Angela (Mircea Monroe of Showtime's "Episodes") and Not Blonde Angela (Twilight's Angela Sarafyan)—are simply Penthouse-letter fantasies who drop in to spend the day at the guys' Bohemian-cool loft getting high, playing games and each having sex with Jimmy. It's not hard to tell who the writer-director-producer-star is in this scenario.

They've vapid people, but not in a way that comments on any perceived vapidity in modern society. They're just spoiled and uninteresting. If the women have any careers or ambitions, they don't get mentioned. Jimmy calls James "a conformist sadster…in your little cubicle." That would have been cutting-edge social commentary in the 1950s.

D'Elia has said in interviews that the idea for the film came when he moved from New York City, where he was an NYU film-school grad, to Los Angeles and became severely, seriously ill for months. In the film, his character Jimmy claims he has a terminal disease—though given every other fantasy in which Jimmy indulges, that may or may not be true and the movie never establishes that as a fact. Yeah, so he spits up blood—go to WebMD; that could be anything.

Strategically repetitive dialogue and the use of baby talk and made-up language are the stuff of 1950s and 1960s experimental theatre, where they were done to better effect and to achieve some insightful point. And while deliberately static shots throughout the movie and the self-conscious jump-cuts early on yell "film school," nothing here yells "real life."